Ends and means
I’m still slowly working my way through Sen’s Development as Freedom, which is well worth the effort, though not a book I recommend reading in twenty-minute sessions (the length of my train ride home). Sen makes a great point about evaluation that I think can be usefully applied to the OER movement, which is that ends and means are often confused in evaluation. The example Sen gives is in measuring poverty, the overwhelming majority of evaluations examine comparative income. He points out that increasing income is a means for poverty reduction, but that the possession of more income does not in and of itself reduce the state of deprivation that poverty creates, nor do equal amounts alleviate poverty equally for all people. Some people–the ill, the old, the handicapped–will require substantially more money to alleviate their deprivation that the young and healthy. He also points out that comparisons of income do not reflect critical “tipping points” points in sustainable income–i.e. the loss of a relatively small percentage of overall income can precipitate a rapid decline into a state of dramatically increased deprivations.
For OER, it’s important to recognize that open educational resources are a means to a goal or set of goals and not (necessarily) the ends. “Helping developing regions” has been one explicit goal of OER projects from the beginning, and it’s here that OER intersects with Sen’s definition of the goal of development, which I think can be usefully adopted as an OER goal: to increase, for as many people as possible, the “substantive freedoms–the capabilities–to choose a life one has reason to value.” I think few would deny that access to education limits the capabilities of a great many people to choose a life they have reason to value. Access to basic education, information regarding sanitation, health, public policy and civil engineering is one clear means to increasing the substantive freedoms to people in developing regions.
There are of course a number of other ends that OER could and should serve, but if the above is at least a high priority, then in can help in guiding decisions regarding the provision of OER. For example, while OER sharing is enabled by the cost efficiencies of delivery via the world wide web, the vast majority of learners, especially in developing regions, will not be able to learn on the web. This suggests that while OER are distributed via the web, they should move gracefully into offline teaching environments. I’ve argued before that increased formatting reduces the total possible audience for a given resource. The more it is tied to web use, the fewer (especially those in developing regions) will be able to use the resource.
Increased formatting also presupposes a knowledge of the “best” formats, which seems to me a gamble based on incomplete knowledge. What appears to be the best format in one instance (XML, for example) may, if adopted as a “universal” format, become a significant barrier to the distribution of indigenous knowledge from developing regions, as educators in these areas will likely lack the time to learn the additional skills required to distribute their own materials. Increased formatting can also at some level introduce cultural and academic barriers to reuse. The more tightly materials are integrated into an online delivery mechanism, the harder it is to adjust for cultural difference or to account for the skill level or prerequisite knowledge of students who might use the material.
If there is any one constant right now in the OER field, it is that everyone is operating on incomplete knowledge. To get back to Sen, it’s not clear yet how OERs are used in practice, what materials are most valuable, or what barriers are most difficult to overcome. In other words, we haven’t yet established what the best means to the ends are. All the learning objects in the world, or PDFs, or XML documents may not be of much use at all to developing countries (or developed ones for that matter). This suggests that the choice of formats is best left to educators, at least in the near term. If educators create resources using the best technologies and pedagogies for their local learners, and the OER movement focuses on the most cost-effective ways of making those resources available to wide audiences without intensive reformatting, the best formats will emerge in a market-economy environment, and these formats may differ significantly from region to region. The point is not to converge on a universal format, but to allow for academic exchange across formats, cultures and learning levels.